The Northern Premier League

26th April 2022, Leek Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-4

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets travelled to Staffordshire for the biggest game in the club's 16-year history, to compete with Leek Town for a place in the Pitching In NPL West division play-off final.

Linnets were already the only side to beat Leek twice this season, but nobody expected the achievement of a treble to be easy, since Town had dominated Marine on their own ground on the last day of the league season, to secure third place.

Former Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher had attended that game, and its victors had reported that he had 'told mates that Leek were the best team he had seen this season'.

If Carra had popped down to Harrison Park three days later, he might have been telling his mates that he had undergone a rethink.

Linnets grabbed the game by the throat as never before, taking a 2-0 lead within three minutes, and making it 3-0 before half-time (as Leek had done at Marine). There can rarely have been a better endorsement for the adage that attack is the best form of defence. While the second half was to be a much more evenly-contested affair, a 4-1 Runcorn victory cemented their status as the division's form team at the sharp end of the season.

I was indebted to my match reporting predecessor, Ste Bignall for a description of the opening goal, as Iwan Murray scored it before the clock had advanced to one minute. I was embedded among the 1,381 souls still shuffling to their vantage points, and couldn't see a thing.

Apparently, a rapid Linnets attack from kick-off produced a frantic bout of head-tennis in the Leek penalty area, and when the ball fell to earth, Iwan controlled it outside the right corner of the six-yard box, and slotted it home low past 'keeper Daniel Roberts.

Before I had a chance to get the lowdown from Ste, it was 2-0. Linnets went straight back on the attack from the restart, to set up a blistering Ryan Brooke shot from the edge of the area, which Roberts did well to tip over the bar.

The corner was glanced away, but Iwan Murray returned the ball towards a crowded area. Brooke controlled the ball on the 18-yard line, in line with the right post. He spotted a narrow path inside it, and found the corner of the net beyond Roberts' outstretched fingers.

The semi-final was three minutes old, but Linnets fans already dared to make plans for Saturday, and a trip to Workington, or the dreamed-of home final against Marine.

There was no Runcorn complacency on the pitch, however. Leek's new artificial surface is a good one, and Linnets relished playing their quick pass and move game on it.

A shell-shocked looking Leek aimed to calm things down and get into the game, but couldn't turn any middle third possession into an opening for a rapid fightback. The Linnets back four had the bit between their teeth just as much as their teammates further forward.

Lewis Doyle in a holding midfield role had his standout performance in a Runcorn shirt, never easing up from start to finish.

A Murray corner, one of many won by Lloyd Marsh-Hughes' repeated threat in the right side of the penalty area, might have led to an incredible 3-0 lead after just ten minutes. But a brief slip in communication caused Brooke and O'Mahony to go for the same header, when one or the other might well have scored.

Just afterwards, Leek managed their first meaningful attack, a corner on the left leading to a shot over the bar from close range.

In the 14th minute, Joe Lynch almost bagged a third goal, with a break into the area from the left and a shot which cannoned off the far post, possibly via Roberts' fingertips.

The half settled into a midfield tussle for a while, punctuated by a couple of free-kicks for either side, and when Leek found a way past the ball-winning attentions of Doyle and Welsh, the Linnets defence remained resolute.

They did have a narrow escape on 23 minutes, though, when Owen Mooney had to race out to challenge for a high ball tthrough the middle.

Having left his area, he had to head it away, and Trickett-Smith's return volley eluded Owen's back-pedalling dive, but also cleared the left post.

Five minutes followed in which Leek had more of the ball, and continued to press. A promising advance up the left by Ammar Dyer was halted by a great Peter Wylie tackle, and tight closing by Brown, O'Mahony and Short also prevented any further clear chances.

Sean O'Mahony had another chance to add to the scoring at the other end, from another corner conceded to stop Marsh-Hughes turning in on goal. But he had to stoop a little to head, and the ball looped up and over the bar.

On the break, a high ball into the Runcorn area was headed out by Brown for a corner, which Wylie cleared, and the Linnets captain also made a great block on a Tim Grice shot from the left.

There were Leek shouts for a penalty, as O'Mahony tackled Reeves on the edge of the area, but his arms-out dive was a bit too theatrical to convince a well placed referee.

If that didn't convince the Blues that it wasn't going to be their night, they were left in no doubt by the Runcorn breakaway.

Doyle passed forward to Lynch, who found Marsh-Hughes at the right corner of the penalty area. He slipped two defenders to reach the goal line, and Roberts seemed to agree with all of us that the angle was too tight for a shot on goal. All, that is, except Lloydy, who threaded the ball behind the 'keeper and into the far side of the net.

There were ten minutes of the half remaining, and that appeared to be enough for the Linnets lead to be extended further, as a ruthless attacking display continued.

A five-man raid on the Leek area had Marsh-Hughes, Lynch and Murray all vying for the chance of a shot, but it was Brooke who managed one, from the edge of the area, and it slammed into the fascia of the covered terrace, just above the bar.

A lull in the middle of the pitch took up most of the remaining minutes of the half, plus four added. It was difficult to see where they came from, as there had been few interruptions in a stunningly dominant Linnets performance that nobody could reasonably have expected.

A 3-0 half-time lead often leads to some safety-first 'bus parking', but the yellow and green were in no mood to play it cagey.

In the first minute after the break, Ryan Brooke was away on the left and passed inside to Joe Lynch. He relayed it to Iwan Murray in the centre, and his shot cleared the bar by a foot.

Doyle and Welsh continued to win tackles to prevent Leek gaining forward ground, and it took five minutes for the hosts to get in a shot from distance, which sailed high over the terrace roof and into the trees.

A fantastic attendance of 1,381 was announced, and for more than 50 minutes so far, it had sounded as though about 3,000 of them were Linnets.

Possession was to be shared more equally between the teams in the second half, but chances kept coming for the visitors.

Murray bamboozled Wara and Edge to weave his way in from the left and cross low for Brooke. He turned to shoot, but couldn't find a space between Grocott and Harrison.

Louis Keenan's head glanced a threatening corner out to the far touchline, and when Marsh-Hughes won another off Wara, Roberts did well to get both gloves on it before a Runcorn head could get there.

The first personnel changes of the night introduced Louis Hayes for Jacques Welsh, with Will Saxon replacing Scott Wara for Leek.

Marsh-Hughes drove the Leek defence to distraction again, and was wrestled riskily by Keenan in the area. Lloyd stayed upright long enough to pass left to Brooke, whose shot was blocked, and a Lynch follow-up shot from 25 yards met a wall of bodies.

Complacency was being resisted in the Runcorn camp, but thoughts of where they might be on Saturday were irresistible. Up in Cumbria, the score had been 1-1 at half-time, Marine having equalised an early Workington goal, but the home side were ahead again on the hour mark.

The smart money was on an away trip through Lakeland for the final.

The focus returned sharply to current events when, after 65 minutes, the Runcorn defence allowed a workable space for Leek to operate in for the first time.

From the left side of the area, Tim Grice was able to shoot across Mooney and into the net, to cut the deficit to two.

Blues are a side who are eminently capable of turning a game inside 25 minutes, but there would be no panic from the yellow and green.

The defence returned to their resolve, chasing every ball with a determination to win it, and not just to launch it to safety. And they were not joined by an offensive unit retreating to reinforce the back line. They still had attacking to do.

Doyle won a tackle on halfway and passed long to Brooke, just outside the area. He appealed for a foul by Harrison, but optimistically.

A strong Leek attack up the left was switched via three passes to Tom Edge on the right, and Grice met his cross with a good head on target.

Mooney did well to grasp it inside the right post.

James Short broke away fast up the Runcorn left, and won a corner from Dyer's block. Reeves headed that out at the near post for another.

Murray's kick was heading for the near post again, until Edge miscued his block, for the ball to loop high into the middle of the six-yard box. Roberts held on to it well.

In this more tightly-contested half, Murray had been sitting deeper than earlier, joining Doyle in taking possession inside his own half to advance into Leek territory.

As so often all season, Iwan's runs were being increasingly truncated by fouls. Grice was yellow carded for the third in as few minutes.

With 15 minutes remaining, Leek were further restricted from going all-out to save the game, by the introduction of Dapo Olarewaju for Joe Lynch.

Dapo's pace up the right-hand side gave Town more urgent matters to address.

It was becoming harder for Leek to prevent crosses from either wing, and they concentrated on crowding the middle to block routes to goal.

James Short pulled a ball back from the touchline to Murray, who was fouled again, 40 yards out. His free-kick found Brooke in the area, and he knocked it back for Doyle to sprint and blast a shot. It was on target, but connected with a barrage of blue shirts.

Murray's run into the area appeared to have been halted by a foul, but it turned out to be to Linnets' benefit that the referee awarded a corner from the left.

This time there was no human barrier at the near post, and Harrison and his 'keeper were powerless to prevent the head of Ryan Brooke from burying his 33rd goal of the season, and with it, Leek Town's promotion hopes.

Murray tried again for a second goal of his own, with an airborne volley from Olarewaju's cross, but Harrison blocked and cleared.

Iwan was quickly back in his own half to go again, after Brown and Wylie had ended a Leek run up the left, but he was felled once more on the halfway line.

With eight minutes remaining, it seemed a little late for the spoiling tactic to have much effect on the result.

But Blues certainly hadn't given up, and they mounted three promising attacks in as many minutes.

O'Mahony stepped in to clear the first, and Mooney had the second covered as it limped past the right post.

Dyer got past Short to make the touchline, but the left-back recovered to prevent the cross and concede a corner. That was intercepted and held by Mooney.

After the game, thrilled Linnets boss Calum McIntyre suggested that, had it been a boxing match, it would have been stopped at half-time.

But while Leek had composed themselves to get back into the fight after the break, the closing minutes looked like a case of counting down the clock to a unanimous verdict on points, and by a very wide margin.

In a mercifully short period of added time, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes had the last attacking word of the night, with a shot that he dragged wide of the left post from the edge of the area.

Linnets Live Radio made him man of the match, and that was no mean achievement, given the competition from Doyle, Brooke, and the entire back four.

The dying seconds did accommodate a celebratory roar from the Linnets throng, however, as word came through that Marine had grabbed an ultra-late equaliser in Workington, to take their semi-final into extra-time.

It was well into the journey home that we learned that Marine's Neil Kengni had completed his hat-trick for a 3-2 double comeback win, and a final showdown between Linnets and Marine at APEC Taxis Stadium. Dreams just kept coming true.

This was Leek Town's sixth play-off campaign in a decade, and they will have been disappointed with their showing in this one, especially having been top of the league table when Covid lockdowns curtailed each of the last two seasons.

But a stunning Runcorn performance must not be underestimated. Their opponents had conceded more than two goals in a game just once all season, with a 2-3 defeat at Mossley in September.

The 4-1 scoreline here did not flatter Linnets in any way, and the margin could easily have been greater.

They will surely ride the crest of a wave of confidence and noise into the home final on the last day of April.

A season of monumental overachievement is already confirmed, whatever the outcome, but if Linnets miss out on the second promotion place, Marine will thoroughly deserve it.

Runcorn Linnets:Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short, Lewis Doyle, Peter Wylie, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Dapo Olarewaju 74), Jacques Welsh (Louis Hayes 56), Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Eden Gumbs, Carl Spellman.


NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.

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